It was back in 2016 that the UAE appointed its first Minister of State for Happiness, Her Excellency Ohoud Al Roumi. In the intervening years the department has sought to drive innovative policy, determined to show that its creation was about bringing substantive change and not just positive publicity.
The United Nations World 2021 Happiness Report placed the UAE as the 25th happiest country between 2018-20, and despite the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, the emirates continues to pursue a happiness-centric agenda.
“At the heart of any development here in the UAE is the focus of the human being,” says the UAE Minister of Community Development, Hessa Bint Essa Buhumaid, at Expo 2020’s ‘Chemistry of Happiness’ event. “The wealth of the community and society is the human being.
“This is our top priority, which became very clear when the pandemic hit. One of the major decisions the government has made is to put the individuals at the heart of everything we do.”
The UAE’s National Programme for Happiness and Wellbeing has been running for six years, focusing on individuals, community and the whole country. Minister Buhumaid admits that because happiness is by nature subjective, creating policy can be challenging.
“Happiness is not the only focus, because research shows that being happy can be different from one person to another,” she says. “I remember when we started people thought we were crazy… we surveyed people and looked for what makes each individual well, what goes into that and then what makes the community happy and thriving too.”
The UAE’s collaborative approach to community happiness is one that Dr Vikram Patel, Harvard Medical School’s professor of global health, feels other governments could take heed of, suggesting an outlook of collective responsibility is more effective to ensure the happiness of citizens.
“There is too much emphasis on what we can do as individuals to promote our own happiness,” Dr Patel explains. “This is partly fuelled by governments who want to transfer the responsibility of the happiness of their populations completely to the individuals.
“The really powerful actions will be social circumstance, which enable all persons in a community to experience sustained happiness. That means a society that is fair and just, where all citizens are all treated equally well.
“Where there is genuine community and global solidarity for the big issues which affect all of us like climate change, we need action to make happiness a public good like education and health, where everyone has the right to live a life with meaning and purpose.”
The importance of community cohesion is also underlined by Elisha London, CEO and founder of UK-based mental health strategy company Prospira Global. With an average of two percent of health budgets go towards mental health, those in power need to be more decisive with their interventions, she says.
“There shouldn’t be too much focus on the individual as this is a systemic issue,” London says. “How do we address the structures in place? Most people don’t have access to support so it always falls back on the individual. But what are governments doing, what is the role of business? What is it going to take for us to really come together to address all those factors, not just the individual?
“We know that a business that invests in the mental health of their people and governments that invest in their people has a financial return, but also lives are impacted, communities are impacted, culture is impacted; we are better as whole people when we invest in our mental health. It has been underfunded and deprioritized for so long.
“Businesses can think about this idea of being net-mental health positive across people, products, philanthropy. They will have happy staff and happy communities. It’s not about putting pressure on ourselves to be happy all the time, but making the decision to live a life that will make use happier.”
The quest for a ‘formula’ for happiness has been somewhat of a holy grail for academics, governments and the World Health Organisation alike as humanity attempts to define exactly what it is that makes people happy. According to Dr Patel, there is an important distinction to be drawn between positive mental health and happiness.
“It is an intensely private experience, like physical health,” he says. “It seems counterintuitive to suggest someone can be happy while they’re not experiencing good mental health, but happiness is not the same as the absence of mental health problems.
“People with depression can experience happiness because they’re living a life with meaning and purpose… Mental health encompasses a much wider range of human experiences beyond happiness — it is influenced by one’s genes, physiology and early life experiences.”
The pursuit of happiness may seem like an obvious driving force in people’s lives, but the reality is much more nuanced. Also, it is not possible to be positive and productive at all times.
“Happiness and joy bring so much into our lives, but if that’s our end goal we miss the whole spectrum of human emotion,” mental health strategist London concludes.
“There is joy to be found in the hard times too, and we need to accept that in our lives we will be sad as well as happy, and that we can and should talk about both.”
Mark is a Dubai-based writer who has couch-surfed through Ukraine, broken bread with football fans in Basra, and appeared on a boxing reality TV show in the UAE – all in pursuit of a good story. Or at least an average anecdote.